TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - As Florida schools opened their doors to students --- some maskless --- the number of children hospitalized with COVID-19 has increased more than tenfold.
At a news conference Thursday with U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., University of South Florida College of Public Health professor Jason Salemi said an average of six children were hospitalized each day with COVID-19 in early June. But during the last week of August, that increased to an average of 66 children.
"The likelihood of a child being hospitalized with COVID-19 is far lower than an adult being hospitalized with COVID-19," Salemi said. "But we are continuing to see a rise in hospitalizations for pediatric populations."
Christina Canody, a BayCare health system pediatrician who took part in the news conference, said 180 COVID-19 pediatric patients were hospitalized at BayCare’s 13 hospitals in August, the "highest by far" and triple the previous high count. In addition to increasing hospitalizations, Canody said the health system has seen an uptick in the number of emergency room visits among pediatric patients.
"One of the things I want to stress is although we have seen a tremendous increase in pediatric admission to the hospital in general, kids still have a less complicated course and death rates remain low," Canody said, noting that most of the BayCare patients had been treated at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital in Tampa. "That being said, the pediatric population in the hospital still makes up 1.5 to 2 percent of those patients and because the adult numbers are so high right now, we see that in the pediatric population."
Canody blamed the increase in pediatric hospitalizations, in part, on the reopening of schools when the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus was sweeping across the state.
"We see as we open the school year, it was truly what I call the perfect storm. Last year when we opened, we had mandatory mask requirements. We had some of the lowest rates of infectivity, positivity and prevalence that we had seen during the pandemic," Canody said. "But this year, we were at (the) absolute opposite ends of the spectrum. We were at very high prevalence and positivity rates, and we continue to see a large number of children impacted."
Gov. Ron DeSantis has downplayed the spread of COVID-19 in children. At a news conference last month in South Florida, the governor said the spread of the respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, among children is "much more of a concern than the COVID."
DeSantis has pushed back against a connection between school attendance and a rise in hospitalizations.
On July 30, DeSantis issued an executive order that sought to block school districts from requiring students to wear masks without allowing parents to opt out of the requirements. He cited a new state law known as the "Parents’ Bill of Rights," which addresses parents' ability to control decisions about their children’s education and health care.
But 13 school districts have approved mask mandates, with exceptions only for children who have doctors’ notes. In a lawsuit filed by parents, Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled that DeSantis overstepped his authority with the executive order. DeSantis contends that the ruling will be overturned on appeal.
Christina Pushaw, a DeSantis spokeswoman, said Thursday in a statement to The News Service of Florida that overall hospitalizations due to COVID-19 have declined by nearly 10 percent in the past week. She said children account for 1.4 percent of the patients, which, she said, was "in line with previous variants of COVID-19, suggesting that delta is not necessarily more dangerous to children than past variants."
Pushaw said the governor's office was "glad to see that pediatric hospitalizations also are declining."
DeSantis’ response to the summer surge in COVID-19 cases has resulted in a torrent of criticism from Democrats such as Castor, who represents the Tampa area.
Castor called on the governor to adhere to public-health guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.
"This is a critical time where it’s an all-hands-on-deck moment for all of us to listen to our public health professionals and our pediatricians. I don't think it's that hard," Castor said. "I think the state of Florida really deserves better leadership "
An Aug. 26 report issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association said Florida had totaled 311,102 COVID-19 cases in children from infants to age 14 since the pandemic began. That was a 9 percent increase from a 284,280 total in an Aug. 19 report.
Salemi and Canody said the increasing number of pediatric patients in Florida is a reason for concern.
"I understand that kids do well with this and most recover, but still we do have a lot of children who will be admitted to the hospitals. And when you are going from a handful a week or a handful a day to having several hundred within a whole month that’s a lot of patients that are going through this experience. Missed school days, recovery time, high economic hardship to the family, there’s so many aspects to it," Canody said. "So we get that children still make up a small proportion of this, but I think you can’t measure it based on their illness. You have to base it on the complete costs to the family and those around them."
As the delta variant has caused a surge of cases during the past two months, Salemi said hospitals saw record hospitalizations among all age groups.
"If you have to be hospitalized for something, it’s very serious. So if you see a record number of hospitalizations, we are going to see a record number of mortalities," Salemi said. "So, again, whether you talk proportionally about what percentage does the pediatric population make up. That’s not what’s important to me. It’s if we can prevent children from being hospitalized, why not take every opportunity to do that."